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French phrase of the day: Diagonale du vide

Today’s word often comes up in discussions about France’s urban-rural divide.

French phrase of the day: Diagonale du vide
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Why do I need to know diagonale du vide ?

Because it can help you to understand a part of France that often gets forgotten.

What does it mean?

Diagonale du vide means “empty diagonal”, and refers to a stretch of the country running from the south-west to the north-east, where population density is generally much lower than it is elsewhere.

The phenomenon is visible in this 2018 population density map from national statistics agency Insee.

Population density at communal level.  Source: Insee.

The area takes in many rural departments such as Creuse, in Nouvelle-Aquitaine, which gives its name to a similar expression – “au fin fond de la Creuse” (in deepest Creuse) – also used to conjure up a sense of remoteness.

As well as low population density, the diagonale du vide is generally categorised by an ageing population, fewer job opportunities, and a lack of public services.

During the pandemic, many people have pointed out that Covid-19 rates are much lower in this part of France.

Although the term is widely used to refer to the extremely rural areas in central France, today many geographers find it to be overly pejorative, and so prefer the term diagonale des faibles densités (low-density diagonal).

Use it like this

Dans la diagonale du vide, tout le monde doit avoir une voiture – In the empty diagonal, everybody needs a car.

Le virus circule beaucoup moins dans la diagonale du vide – The virus is circulating much less in rural France.

Elle ne peut pas dormir s’il y a beaucoup de bruit, elle a grandi dans la diagonale du vide – She can’t sleep if there’s a lot of noise, she grew up in a very isolated area.

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For members


French Expression of the Day: Faire trempette

You'll definitely need this phrase as the temperature rises.

French Expression of the Day: Faire trempette

Why do I need to know faire trempette?

Because you might need this phrase to describe that urge to jump in the water once the temperature hits a certain degree this summer.

What does it mean?

Faire trempette – usually pronounced fair trahm-pet – literally means ‘to make dipping sauce’ because the word ‘trempette’ is actually a condiment, or a dip, typically used for raw vegetables. In Canada, the dip is popular, and quite similar to Ranch dressing – a great addition to your crudités (vegetable snacks). 

But this phrase does not have anything to do with your healthy finger-food – in the colloquial sense, the phrase faire trempette actually means to take a dip – as in to go swimming.  

The way the expression came to become about swimming and not eating is pretty logical – in the 1600s a ‘trempette’ was a slice of bread dipped in liquid. As time went on people started to say ‘faire la trempette’ to describe the action of dipping food in liquid – like bread into wine – prior to taking a bite.

It became the metaphorical way of talking about taking a very short bath in the 19th century and now it’s the best way to reference the urge to  splash around for a second before heading back to the lounge chairs to tan. 

While you may  not have heard of this phrase before, you’ve definitely heard its synonym: the verb ‘se baigner’ (‘to bathe,’ but more so used as ‘to swim’). 

Use it like this

Comme la température augmente, je suis encore plus tentée d’aller faire trempette dans le canal. – As the temperature gets higher, I am even more tempted to go take a dip in the canal. 

Je pense que je vais faire trempette et ensuite m’allonger pour bronzer au soleil pendant un moment. – I think I will take a dip and then lay out to tan for a bit.